John Wesley’s Three Simple Rules

Readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter (Year B)

Acts 10:44-48

Psalm 98

1 John 5:1-6

John 15:9-17

This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka CA on May 6, 2018.

The Rev. Kathryn Dunning of the First United Methodist Church here in Eureka presented to me a little book of John Wesley’s Three Simple Rules and said, “Receive this book as a reminder that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was nurtured and ordained in your tradition [Anglicanism] and lived his entire life as an Anglican priest.” I had previously studied and even given some lectures on John Wesley and his brother Charles Wesley (the author of more than 20 hymns in our hymnal) and I studied other inspiring Evangelical Anglicans of the 18th century such as William Wilberforce (who abolished the slave trade in England) and Hannah More (who is one of the great pioneers of Sunday School and spiritual formation for children) and John Newton (the author of the hymn Amazing Grace) and Charles Simeon and many more. However, I never knew John Wesley’s “Three Simple Rules” until I read this book. And the rules are simply this: “Do no harm. Do good. And stay in love with God.” Do no harm. Do good. And stay in love with God. Our readings this morning, which urge us to obey God’s commandments and to abide in God’s love, can be summed up fairly well in John Wesley’s three simple rules: Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God.

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Wesley wrote these three rules in the mid 18th century when the Church of England (the Anglican Church) was becoming more of a country club for social prestige and status; and Sunday worship had become little more than an opportunity to dress up nice, appear to be very pious, listen to some music, hear a boring sermon, gossip and then go home. John Wesley felt that following Christ and keeping his commandments involved much more than this.

In May of 1738, almost 280 years ago exactly, John Wesley had what many today call a “born again” experience while listening to someone read Martin Luther’s Introduction to the Book of Romans. He said he felt his heart was “strangely warmed” and his trust in Christ deepened like never before. This day, known as Aldersgate Day, is actually celebrated by Methodists as a kind of holiday on May 24th. And on the original Aldersgate Day, Wesley was given the strength to shake things up, mostly by reminding people that following Christ requires much more than just dressing up and performing rituals. For Wesley, following Christ meant doing no harm, doing good and staying in love with God. Wesley knew that, in order to do that effectively, we need to abide in God and let God pour his love into us as we just prayed in our Collect this morning and be filled up with God like the Gentiles in the reading from Acts who started speaking in tongues and praising God in other languages. The baptized Gentiles in Acts were expressing what John Wesley called “enthusiasm.” Now the word enthusiasm comes from the Greek words “en” and “theos” which mean God within, so enthusiasm actually means having one’s insides filled up with God.

Unfortunately, Anglicans in the mid 18th century felt there was no room in the church for this “enthusiasm.” In fact, there is actually a memorial plaque at a church in Cambridge praising the ministry of a long term rector for serving the parish for 38 years and not allowing “the slightest trace of enthusiasm.” That was actually meant to be a great compliment from the parishioners who were very pleased that their rector had kept the enthusiasts far away. The “enthusiasts” were the followers of John Wesley, who were also known derisively as the Methodists.

As an aside, John Wesley was actually the rector of Christ Church in Savannah GA where he started America’s first Sunday School and published the first English hymnal in America. However, his time there was short and he quickly returned to England for a variety of reasons. And when back in England, John Wesley was actually banned from preaching at most Anglican churches because of his “enthusiasm.” And although John and his brother Charles remained Anglican priests until the day they died, Methodism eventually split off from the Church of England as a new denomination. Today, Episcopalians and Methodists are working together to officially be in full communion as denominations just as the Episcopal Church is currently in full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This is encouraging and exciting because we have so much to learn from one another. We Episcopalians can offer Methodists a deeper and richer understanding of the holy sacraments and the liturgy while Methodists can remind us to be enthusiastic; to do no harm, to do good and to stay in love with God.

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John Wesley’s teachings helped us Episcopalians formulate the document that we have been saying together throughout this Easter season: that is, the baptismal covenant, which is our way of talking about Wesley’s three simple rules.

The first Anglican bishop I met was the late Bishop Bob Anderson of Minnesota. About 10 years ago, he encouraged me to pursue the priesthood and he summed up his entire ministry not with three rules but with three words: the baptismal covenant. He explained that that is our common life and our work together.

In the baptismal covenant, we together affirm the words of the Apostles’ Creed. We then make a vow to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers. We vow to persevere in resisting evil, and whenever we fall into sin, to repent and return to the Lord. We vow to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ, to serve Christ in all persons and to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being. These are vows that would make John Wesley proud.

I will admit that I personally enjoy asperging us all with holy water, but that’s not the primary reason I do it. (It’s a close second). The primary reason I do it is to remind us all of our baptism and our baptismal vows, our own commitments to do no harm, to do good and to stay in love with God. This is why respectful conversations and communal action regarding lethal gun violence and poverty and homelessness and racism and injustice and much more are actually not peripheral to our ministry here. Rather they are integral and essential to it, flowing naturally out of the vows we have made before the church and before God. And the ways we each fulfill those vows may look different, but we are called to fulfill them. And it is my job as your priest to remind us of those vows and to hold us all accountable, including myself. And I invite us to do so enthusiastically, in the original meaning of that word: by being filled up with God.

Whenever we affirm or reaffirm our baptismal vows we say, “We will, with God’s help” because in order to fulfill our vows, we need God to fill us up, to pour his love and Holy Spirit into us as he did to the baptized Gentiles in Acts who spoke in tongues, as he did to John Wesley whose heart was strangely warmed, and as he wants to do in your life, in my life and in our life together as a church so that we can bear fruit, fruit that will last. Amen.

After some brief silence, we will again say together the words of the baptismal covenant. I will ask us the first three questions, but when we get to the fourth question which is “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?” I invite one of you to ask us the question and the remaining questions. If two or three ask the question at the same time, that is fine, just say it together. And then I will offer the closing prayer.

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